The gin brand Hendrick’s engaged in a very clever bit of non-sense, when they suggested that their product be served not with lemon but with cucumber, which gained immediate salience. Being British, I failed to notice the genius of this move, which was that it also positioned the drink as sophisticatedly British in the United States; Americans find cucumber sandwiches a British peculiarity. To a Brit, of course, a cucumber is not seen as being particularly British – it is just something we make sandwiches with.
Caught off the Cornish coast before being salted and shipped all over Europe, they had been a delicacy for centuries, until the advent of domestic refrigeration and freezing caused the appetite for salted fish – at least outside of Portugal – fall away. “The market was dying fast as the little shops that sold them closed down,’ says Nick Howell of the Pilchard Works fish suppliers in Newlyn. ‘I realised I needed to do something about it.’ Fortunately, Nick though creatively. He discovered that what the Cornish often called the pilchard was related to the fish that was served, with lemon and olive oil, to British tourists in the Mediterranean as a fashionable sardine. So he changed the name from the pilchard, a name redolent of ration food, to the ‘Cornish sardine’. Next, a supermarket buyer who called to ask for French sardines was deftly switched to buying ‘pilchards from Cornwall’. A few years ago Nick successfully petitioned the EU to award Cornish sardines Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) status, and the result was extraordinary: the Daily Telegraph reported in 2012 that sales of fresh sardines at Tesco had rocketed by 180 per cent in the past year, an increase that was partly explained by a huge increase in the sales of Cornish sardines.
Every day, companies or governments wrongly make highly simplistic assumptions about what people care about. Two major US retailers, JCPenney and Macy’s, both fell foul of this misunderstanding when they tried to reduce their reliance on couponing and sales, and instead simply reduced their permanent prices. In both cases, the strategy was a commercial disaster. People didn’t want low prices – they wanted concrete savings. One possible explanation for this is that we are psychologically rivalrous, and we like to feel we are getting a better deal than other people. If everyone can pay a low price, the thrill of having won out over other people disappears; a quantifiable saving makes on feel smart, while paying the same low prices as everyone else just makes us feel like cheapskates. Another possible explanation is that a low price, unlike a discount, does not allow people any scope to write a more cheerful narrative about a purchase after the event – ‘I saved £33’, rather than ‘I spent £45’.
When you think about it, it is rather strange how explicit low-cost airline are about what their ticket prices don’t include: a pre-allocated seat, a meal, free drinks, free checked luggage – such deficiencies help to explain and destigmatise the low prices. ‘Oh, I see,’ you can say, when you see a flight to Budapest advertised for £37, ‘the reason that low price is possible is because I won’t be paying for a lot of expensive fripperies that I probably don’t want anyway.’ It’s an explicit, well-defined trade-off, and one that we feel happy to accept.
Imagine if cheap airlines instead claimed: ‘We’re just a good as British Airways, but at a third of the price.’ Either nobody would believe them, or else such a claim would raise instant doubts. ‘Maybe the only reason they’re cheaper is because they don’t bother servicing the engines or training the pilots, or because the planes are scarcely airworthy.’
The ethnographer Tricia Wang even suggested in her 2016 TEDxCambridge talk that quantifications bias created by big data led to the near death of Nokia as a handset manufacturer. All their data suggested that people would only spend a certain proportion of their salary on a phone handset, so the market for smartphones in the developing world would be correspondingly small. Wang noticed that, once people saw a smartphone, their readiness to spend on a handset soared. Her findings were ignored as she had ‘too few data points’. However, in reality, all valuable information starts with very little data — the lookout on the Titanic only had one data point… ‘Iceberg ahead’, but they were more important than any huge survey on iceberg frequency.
Control Tower: ‘Maybe we ought to turn on the search lights now?’
Kramer: ‘No… that’s just what they’ll be expecting us to do.’
Most of business is run according to conventional logic. Finance, operations and logistics all operate through established best practice – there are rules, and you need to have a good reason to break them. But there are other parts of a business that don’t work this way, and marketing is one of them: in truth, it’s a part of business where there’s never best practice, because if you follow a standard orthodoxy your brand will become more like your competitors’, thus eroding your advantage. The above joke from Airplane! (1980) appears when the air traffic controller is trying to follow protocol, by turning on the lights on the runway for the approaching plane; Kramer, a war veteran, is frightened of being too predictable.” It underlines a serious point.
Yet there are, when you think about it, two different approaches to business. The is the ‘tourist restaurant’ approach, where you try to make as much money from people on their single visit. And then there is the ‘local pub’ approach, where you may make less money from people on each visit, but where you profit more over time by encouraging people to come back. The second type of business is much more likely to generate trust and yield positive-sum outcomes than the firsy.
How might people distinguish the second type of business from the first? Well, the scoop of extra fried you get at Five Guys is one such gesture – an immediate expense with a deferred pay-off. It is a reliable signifier that you are investing in a repeat relationship, not milking a single transaction. Likewise, when your company pays your salary this month, it says you are worth this money for now; when it sends you to Kitzbuhel, it signals that it is committed to you for a few years at least.
Behavioural economics is an odd term. As Warren Buffett’s business partner Charlie Munger once said, ‘If economics isn’t behavioural, I don’t know what the hell is.’ It’s true: in a more sensible world, economics would be a sub-discipline of psychology. Adam Smith was as much a behavioural economist as an economist – The Wealth of Nations (1776) doesn’t contain a single equation. But, strange though it may seem, the study of economics has long been detached from how people behave in the real world, preferring to concern itself with a parallel universe in which people behave as economists think they should.
One day, Korzybski offered to share a packet of biscuits, which were wrapped in plain paper, with the font row of his lecture audience. ‘Nice biscuit, don’t you think?’ said Korzybski, while the students tucked in happily. Then he tore the white paper and revealed the original wrapper – on it was a picture of a dog’s head and the words ‘Dog Cookies’. Two students began to retch, while the rest put their hands in front of their mouths or in some cases ran out of the lecture hall to the toilet. ‘You see,’ Korzybski said, ‘I have just demonstrated that people don’t just eat food, but also words, and that the taste of the former is often outdone by the taste of the latter.’
There is a parallel in the behaviour of bees, which do not make the most of the system they have evolved to collect nectar and pollen. Although they have an efficient way of communicating about the direction of reliable food sources, the waggle dance, a significant proportion of the hive seems to ignore it altogether and journeys off at random. In the short term, the hive would be better off if all bees slavishly followed the waggle dance, and for a time this random behaviour baffled scientists, who wondered why 20 million years of bee evolution had not enforced a greater level of behavioural compliance. However, what they discovered was fascinating: with out these rogue bees, the hive would get stuck in what complexity theorists call ‘a local maximum’; they would be so efficient at collection food from known sources that, once these existing sources of food dried up, they wouldn’t know where to go next and the hive would starve to death. So the rogue bees are, in a sense, they hive’s research and development function, and their inefficiency pays off handsomely when they discover afresh source of food. It is precisely because they do not concentrate exclusively on short-term efficiency that bees have survived so many million years.
If you optimise something in one direction, you may be creating a weakness somewhere else.
Business, technology and, to a great extent, government have spent the last several decades engaged in an unrelenting quest for measurable gains in efficiency. However, what they have never asked, is whether people like efficiency as much as economic theory believes they do. The ‘doorman fallacy’, as I call it, is what happens when your strategy becomes synonymous with cost-saving and efficiency; first you define a hotel doorman’s role as ‘opening the door’, then you replace his role with an automatic door-opening mechanism.
The problem arises because opening the door is only the notional role of a doorman; his other, less definable sources of value lie in a multiplicity of other functions, in addition to door-opening: taxi-hailing, security, vagrant discouragement, customer recognition, as well as in signalling the status of the hotel. The doorman may actually increase what you can charge for a night’s stay in your hotel.
When every function of a business is looked at from the same narrow economic standpoint, the same game is applied endlessly. Define something narrowly, automate or streamline it — or remove it entirely — then regard the savings as profit.
But 10 x 1 does not equal 1 x 10. Imagine you have ten roles to fill, and you ask ten colleagues to each hire one person. Obviously each person will try to recruit the best person they can find — that’s the same as asking on person to choose the ten best hires he can find, right? Wrong. Anyone choosing a group of ten people will instinctively deploy a much wider variance than someone hiring one person. The reason for this is that with one person we look for conformity, but with ten people we look for complementarity.
If you were only allowed to eat one food, you might choose the potato. Barring a few vitamins and trace minerals, it contains all the essential amino acids you need to build proteins, repair cells and fight diseases – eating just five a day would support you for weeks. However, if you were told you could only eat ten food for the rest of your life, you would not choose ten different types of potato. In fact, you may not choose potatoes at all — you would probably choose something more varied.
Let me give a simple example. The Uber map is a psychological moonshot, because it does not reduce the waiting time for a taxi but simply makes waiting 90 per cent less frustrating. This innovation came from the founder’s flash of insight (while watching a James Bond film, no less) that, regardless of what we say, we are much bothered by the uncertainty of waiting than by the duration of a wait. The invention of the map was perhaps equivalent to multiplying the number of cabs on the road by a factor of ten — not because waiting times got any shorter, but because they felt ten times less irritating.
Robert Zion, the social psychologist, once described cognitive psychology as ‘social psychology with all the interesting variables set to zero’. The point he was making is that humans are a deeply social species (which may mean that research into human behaviour or choices in artificial experiments where there is no social contest isn’t really all that useful). In the real work, social context is absolutely critical. For instance, as the anthropologist Pierre Bourdieu observes, gift giving is viewed as a good thing in most human societies, but it only takes a very small change in context to make a gift an insult rather than a blessing; returning a present to the person who has given it to you, for example, is one of the rudest things you can do. Similarly, offering people money when they do something you like makes perfect sense according to economic theory and is called an incentive, but this does not mean you should try and pay your spouse for sex.
The advertising agency J. Walter Thompson used to set a test for aspiring copywriters. One of the questions was simple: ‘Here are two identical 25-cent coins. Sell me the one on the right.’ One successful candidate understood the idea of alchemy. ‘I’ll take the right-hand coin and dip it in Marilyn Monroe’s bag. Then I’ll sell you a genuine 25-cent coin as owned by Marilyn Monroe.’
In maths it is a rule that 2 + 2 = 4. In psychology, 2 + 2 can equal more or less than 4. It’s up to you.
The following is a perfect illustration of the tendency of modern business to pretend that economics is true, even when it isn’t. London’s West End theatres often send out emails to people who have attended their productions in the past, to encourage them to book tickets, and it was the job of an acquaintance of mine who worked as a marketing executive for a theatre company to send out these emails. Over time, she learned something that defied conventional economic rules; it seemed that if you send out an email promoting a play or musical, you sold fewer tickets with the email. Conversely, offering tickets at full price seemed to increase demand.
According to economic theory, this makes no sense at all, but in the real world it is perfectly plausible. After all, any theatre selling tickets t a discount clearly has plenty to spare, and from this it might be reasonable to infer that the entertainment on offer isn’t all that good. No one wants to spend £100-£200 on tickets, a mean, car-parking and babysitting, only to find that you would have had more fun watching television at home; in avoiding discounted theatre tickets, people are not being silly – they are showing a high degree of second-order social intelligence.
A fascinating theory, first proposed by the evolutionary biologist Robert Trivers and later supported by the evolutionary psychologist Robert Kurzban, explains that we do not have full access to the reasons behind our decision-making because, in evolutionary terms, we are better off not knowing; we have evolved to deceive ourselves, in order that we are better at deceiving others. Just as there are words that are best left unspoken, so there are feelings that are best left unthought. The theory is that if all our unconscious motivations were to impinge on our consciousness, subtle cues in our behaviour might reveal our true motivation, which would limit our social and reproductive prospects.
Robert Trivers gives an extraordinary example of a case where an animal having conscious access to its own actions may be damaging to its evolutionary fitness. When a hare is being chased, it zigzags in a random pattern in an attempt to shake off the pursuer. This technique will be more reliable if it is genuinely random and not conscious, as it is better for the hare to have no foreknowledge of where it is going to jump next: if it knew where it was going to jump next, its posture might reveal clues to its pursuer. Over time, dogs would learn to anticipate these cues – with fatal consequences.